By Seorae Ko
In its 2019 annual report from its Office of the Ombudsman for United Nations Funds and Programmes, released in May, the United Nations celebrated significant progress in expanding mediation as a method of solving workplace conflicts.
The report identified it as one of “the greatest achievements of the past year.”
The Ombudsman Office has emphasized mediation use as a way of intervening in the UN’s internal workplace disputes. The office, which helps UN staff “resolve workplace conflicts in an informal, confidential manner with the aim of maintaining a harmonious workplace environment,” provides an informal grievance procedure for several big UN agencies and programs.
In 2018, the executive director at UNICEF, one of the UN agencies the Ombudsman office serves, commissioned an Independent Task Force on gender discrimination and harassment issues. As recounted in the recent Ombudsman Office annual report, the ITF report identified a number of areas that demanded improvement. In response, the executive director put forth immediate measures, one of which promoted the expansion of UNICEF’s mediation services.
Consequently, UNICEF moved to strengthen its mediation capacity and to provide a systematic, informal mediation option for workplace disputes. The effort included the creation of a team of “on-call external mediators” in the Office of the Ombudsman. To improve the reach and quality of services provided by these external mediators, a variety of measures have been adopted.
The Ombudsman Office’s Global Mediation Panel mediates workplace disputes worldwide. The annual report explains that the initial panel members have been identified, selected, and trained by the office in consultation “with some of the world’s leading mediation organizations as well as with the ombudsman offices of other international organizations.”
The goal is to have one or two on-call mediators available in every country where UNICEF has a presence.
In terms of quality, the Office of the Ombudsman now contains a Mediation Specialist and a Mediation Officer, who work toward uniformity in mediation services. They ensure that mediators heed to UN regulations and rules, and follow a mediation code of conduct developed by the Office.
The Office has also embedded quality control mechanisms in the mediation process, by allowing mediation users to discuss their concerns through surveys, with the Mediation Specialist, and with the Ombudsman directly. The office’s International Advisory Board further aids users in addressing their complaints, acting as a potential check on the Ombudsman’s recommendations.
The profiles of external mediators and board members are posted on the Office’s website to ensure transparency. See: https://fpombudsman.org/global-mediation-panel.
UNICEF has complemented the above measures with broader policy updates that increase support for mediation. New rules spell out that staff members are “strongly encouraged” to seek informal resolution mechanisms, including mediation, to “avoid unnecessary litigation.” The rules also allow organizations to suggest mediation to staff members. The report comments that, although these changes fall short of an opt-out mediation model, they are conducive to increasing the use of mediation.
Furthermore, the report identifies that the Office of the Ombudsman’s efforts have been successful because they found the sweet spot in boosting both supply and demand for mediation. The supply side includes having an appropriate number of mediators and providing a solid regulatory framework. The demand side includes training in, and promotion of, mediation services.
The report suggests that past attempts to expand mediation produced lukewarm results because they failed to address this double-sided need. For years before 2019, the United Nations attempted to “make mediation the ‘natural’ step to deal with employment disputes.” In its 2015 annual report, the Ombudsman’s Office had already identified mediation’s potential as a key tool in workplace dispute resolution, and commented on its underutilization.
In 2016, the office observed the positive impact of mediation in cases involving several stakeholders and a substantial degree of complexity. The 2017 and 2018 reports took it a step further, proposing an opt-out system of mediation, which was not adopted.
But the 2019 annual report shows that the office’s continued interest in mediation produced results. The latest report promotes mediation as a procedure that could both save significant resources in the pre-litigation stage and promote important values including self-determination and confidentiality. The report also warns that “successful dispute-resolution programmes worldwide include clear procedural disincentives to those who try to bypass mediation.”
These comments suggest that the United Nations will continue pushing hard to establish mediation as a preeminent pre-litigation procedure. Giuseppe De Palo, the Ombudsman for United Nations Funds and Programmes, described that “[the Office] took a clear position” in the report on “how to make mediation become mainstream.
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The author, a CPR Institute 2020 Summer intern, is a second year student at Harvard Law School.